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What is Hollywood Teaching You?

by Scott Nehring

Most of us don’t think twice about watching movies. We end a long day of work and turn to movies to distract us from daily troubles. Why should we second guess ourselves about this desire to relax and enjoy a fun story or exciting adventure on screen?

Rather than looking at film as a means of entertainment, consider what it actually is:  a mode of communication.

Screen images are more than flashing pictures blended to give the illusion of movement—they are composed and edited to make statements.  Filmmakers intentionally mold sequences of images to manipulate your conscious and subconscious.

The medium of film relies on direct manipulation of the audience to succeed.  We loathe the villain as he guns down the hero’s friend then cheer as the hero blows away the villain’s bodyguard. Both acts involve killing, but we choose sides because a gifted director or storyteller influences our thought processes.

Cinema magic is not based on logic, it is based in the heart.  We rarely expect or enjoy having our intellects touched directly. No one goes to the cinema to watch abstract mathematical concepts explained—we need an emotional hook to grab us, to engage us, so we can feel and not think. Explanations of complex mathematical equations require the mathematician to be a debilitated, hallucinating genius (A Beautiful Mind), then people are interested. We want to be manipulated into that slightly hypnotic state and have the director caress our emotions.

You are not a passive lump of meat in front of a screen.  You are a vibrant, active soul created to experience story, and you react as the filmmaker plays with your emotions.  We must ask: If films are manipulating us, where are those manipulations leading?

Because film speaks to us through our emotions rather than our logical mind, we run the risk of prolonged manipulation that extends well beyond our time in that darkened room. Film is a hypodermic needle through which morality is injected into the social body.

Film is a mode of communication. What is ultimately communicated is morality. Every film  is simply a story told in images instead of words.  The social function of stories are to deliver moral messages.  This is why we end with “and the moral of the story is….”

Every story, every film, begins with a Central Question:  Will the boy get the girl? Can the hero learn to forgive? Can you fight city hall? The hero struggles through various trials on his way to learning the moral of the story—and in that ending we see the Answer to the Central Question.

Every film has the question and answer structure. Through this structure films promote, condemn, or question our common morality.  An example of this can easily be seen in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

In the opening of the film, Will Turner falls for the beautiful Elizabeth Swann.  Will the boy get the girl?  The answer at the end of the film is, Yes.  How?  Swann’s father, the Governor states it quite clearly: “Sometimes an act of piracy is what’s needed.”  The audience learns a pirate’s situational ethics—might makes right and selfish morality—is the proper way to get what you want; in this case, the beautiful Swann.

Movies are perhaps one of the biggest influences on our morality, on how our society views ethics, even on our relationship under God.  Has there been any other time in our nation’s history where we have come closer to being like the distracted, pitiful people warned of in Scripture?

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim. 4:3 NIV).

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles (Rm. 1:21-23 NIV).

Pay attention to what is whispered in your ear in dark rooms. Be mindful of what you allow strangers to teach your children.  Many false teachings come as flashing shadows on a wall.  Watch with your eyes open. Look for films that teach Biblical truth and reliance on the Lord.

Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in Him (Ps. 32:10, NIV).

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Originally published in Movies & Culture Report. December 1, 2010. All rights reserved.